Producing a live recording is a difficult matter. Especially, during a festival where the conditions are even harder. Why can’t it be just as exciting as attending a concert, you ask? Well… if you produce a record in a studio you try to make the conditions as perfect as possible. The room, the acoustics, the mics, the placement, the backline… everything must be chosen to perfectly match the circumstances.
During a concert, this is much more difficult. And now image the concert taking place in a mid-sized room full of people. And imagine it’s not one band you’re about to record. It’s two. Or three. Or – like during Clouds Hill Festival – six! With just a 15-minute break in between.
So here is what we do: Before the festival starts, we get the tech riders and stage plans of all artists and we look at their setups. The bands with a similar setup share the same room.
For example: A band with drums, guitar, bass and vocals matches the setup of a band with drums, bass, keyboards and two singers. While an artist’s setup with just an acoustic guitar and vocals might be similar to a band with piano and double bass. But if the headliner’s setup is similar to the artists, we think should open the festival … That’s when it starts to get tricky.
That’s when we have to come up with a map that shows the inputs of our consoles (The Neve 8068 MKII or the API 3232) and compare it with the different setups of the stage plans and decide on which mics to use.
During Clouds Hill Festival 2018 we had 5 bands performing:
1. BBXO, a spoken word artist with a DJ and a guest singer 2. Jeannel, a singer who plays guitar and keys with a second guitarist/keyboarder 3. Kolars, a duo which consists of a guy singing and playing guitar and a female drummer who tap-dances on her bass drum, which is laid flat on the ground whilst whacking the rest of her kit (no kidding – you should check them out!) 4. Bela B. & Danube’s Banks… More about them in this article. 5. Omar Rodriguez-Lopez with a new band consisting of drums, keyboards, singer and guitar.
So, as you can see, it was very difficult to come up with the plan of who plays when and where. We put Jeannel in our live room 1 followed by Bela B. Kolars and Omar played in live room 2. BBXO performed in our entrance hall.
In a setup like this – as you have to improvise a lot to make it sound great – you immediately hear which band knows how to get a great sound and which artists struggle. You open some channels and listen to the overall sound of the room. Sometimes I listen to the room mics first, other times to the overhead mics. Some bands need hours to accommodate to the special conditions. Some just start playing and get their sound right immediately.
The first time I experienced a band that sounded absolutely perfect after they had just set up their stuff was Gallon Drunk. James Johnston, Ian White and Terry Edwards set up in Live Room 1, the same room that Bela B. & Danube’s Banks had performed in 2018. They had a massive sound as soon as they started to play! I honestly did not realise that the PA wasn’t turned on until James asked me to switch it on so that he could hear himself sing. I still get goosebumps thinking of that moment.
There is a Gallon Drunk live at Clouds Hill album online. You should check it out! We had a break after 30 minutes to change the tapes. In that break we had a beer with Jean-Hervé Perón, the founder of the Krautrock legends FAUST, as he was part of the audience. That part is also in the video.
Back to Bela B. & Danube’s Banks: I started off listening to the drum overhead mics of Bela B & Danube’s Banks and I immediately knew that they would be an easy band to record. The band was super tight and really enjoyed playing. Bela B. is normally the (stand up) drummer of Die Ärzte, one of Germany’s biggest bands. Legends, so to speak. He has been in the music business for more than 30 years and he is a fabulous entertainer, especially on stage. The band he performed with at Clouds Hill Festival is a gypsy swing project he does for fun. Danube’s Banks are a band that also existed before the collaboration with Bela B. The combination of these artists sharing a stage during that night was really special.
The only problem we had was the great variety of volume we had coming from the different instruments: Drums vs. acoustic guitars played through amps vs. clarinets vs. saxophone vs. double bass. A lot of open mics to deal with means a lot of spill.
There was no real problem recording the guitars because they were equipped with pickups. The only challenge was the woodwind section that was standing right in front of the drums. Bela was standing center stage.
For drums we used Neumann U67’s as overheads which (spoiler ahead!) formed 70% of the entire sound on the record.
I honestly forgot all the other microphones we used because of the festival turmoil. But you know what: it doesn’t matter! Why? Because in this case it wasn’t about the sonic experience of the record. It was all about the atmosphere!
We set up three or four condenser and ribbon mics in front of the stage, facing the different instruments; clarinet, saxophone, guitars and double bass. Bela sang through a Shure sm58. A Classic! You could literally give him any mic and he would perform the hell out of it and sound great. Then we recorded all signals straight to our Studer A820 2” 24 track with barely any EQ or compression. With the risk of repeating myself: They are a great sounding band!
We used the preamps of our Neve 8068 MKII, slightly adding some high frequencies and low cuts but nothing more. The band played some songs they wrote together and three songs that Bela B. had written for Die Ärzte a while ago. As a fan of Die Ärzte I loved listening to „Geld“, „Perfekt“ and „Ignorama“ in that new gypsy swing style. Great songs, great musicians – what could possibly go wrong?
That leads us back to the first question: Why can’t producing a live record be just as exciting as attending a concert. Or can it?
During the show I wasn’t able to mix the record simultaneously. Being the host and engineer of the acts I have a lot on my plate during these nights. I rather save some energy for the after show party.
I had the best time during Bela B. & Danube’s Banks show! Bela B. was joking around and introduced the band during a 15 minute long improv. His interaction with the audience was unique and entertaining. Even though, I guess this gypsy music they played wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I felt that 100% of the audience was delighted by their show.
When Bela B. introduced a song called Krupa, he asked the audience if anyone knew who Gene Krupa was. On the record you can hear a woman screaming „Yeeaaaahhh“ – that was Lauren Brown, the tap-dancing drummer of Kolars who had obviously heard the name before. „She doesn’t count. She’s a specialist“, Bela replied laughing…
Two days after the show I listened to what we recorded and it still sounded good. Without the white wine in my hand, without the audience next to the console, it was far from being perfect though. But it had something you could never add to a record in post-production. That is the reason why we decided to release the recording.
It carries the spectacular flair of that one night that will never reoccur. You were there? Lucky you! But if you listen to the full record you still feel the rawness of the moment, the magic of the moment and the band’s certainty that it will never come back.
So, during post-production, I only added a bit of compression in the master bus using the Vacuvox U23m and a GLM 8200 EQ. I heavily EQed the open woodwind mics and automated the hell out of the faders.
The automation alone took more than a complete day’s work. I used the room mics only for the audience participation, applause and answers to Bela’s questions. All to make you feel like you are right in the middle of it all.
From a tech point of view: attending a live show is certainly much more fun as you tend to disregard all little mistakes. And trying to even out those tiny mistakes is just a lot of meticulous work.
From an artistic point of view: Keeping all those tiny mistakes is what makes the music unique and exciting.
Because life is all about making mistakes, even though people tend to forget that. It’s a shame that these days, most of the records sound dead, because all flaws have been eliminated or evened out. Here is our contribution to the reanimation of music.
Of course, that’s just my point of view. Listen / watch for yourself: